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Why Is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 4

Clearances, conferences, respect, and trust

When your overarching mission boils down to “make sure there are no bad days in America,” it’s a guarantee that a number of people in your operation will require security clearances. At DHS, the vast majority of its employees hold clearances of some sort. Whether it be Secret, Top Secret (TS), Top Secret-SCI (TS-SCI) or possibly double secret probation, the various clearances are in some respects a caste system of sorts. Depending on your badge, its color or the number of stars that are on it grants you access to various sorts of classified information.

The result is that the various clearances that DHS has are not always “interoperable.” For instance, a clearance held by a member of the U.S. Secret Service is different from one that someone at Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement might possess. The same thing holds true for other parts of the department. The truth is, a clearance held by one section of the department may not be recognized by another. Regardless of the fact that they serve the same department and report to the same cabinet secretary, some clearances are clearly “more equal than others.”

Now several steps have been taken by DHS secretaries Ridge, Chertoff, and Napolitano to iron these issues out, but the challenge (culturally and operationally) remains that clearances can be an obstacle to better integrating the components. When only some components will recognize the clearances of others and essentially disqualify (and not recognize) those people from information sharing, program work or even operational activities, you’ve got an issue.

Not every conference or program should have dozens of DHS employees on the agenda or in the audience, but there is value in interacting firsthand and in person with the people, industries and stakeholders of the homeland. Email and phone calls are useful tools, but so are a face-to-face encounter and a handshake.

The truth is, that as important as it is to have people with a security clearance to do a significant portion of the work that the department does, not everything needs to be treated as if it were the Colonel’s secret recipe or the blueprints of the Manhattan Project. There should certainly be background checks done on all of the department’s employees, and those in sensitive positions should certainly be held to a higher standard, but reform of the overall clearance process and its interoperability amidst DHS’ components merits significant attention by its leadership and the larger intelligence community as a whole.

People are being entrusted with all types of significant and deadly serious information, and that requires not just verification of their background and character but also inherent trust. That word “trust” is important, because it is something that the department’s leadership seems to have very little of when it comes to its employees and the stakeholders that they engage.

One of the most important things that the American taxpayers expect of their government is the ability to interact with the people who are its public servants. Whether by letters, phone calls, emails, or meetings, people of all types have found lots of different ways to petition their government for various reasons, both righteous and ridiculous. Petitioning or engaging DHS over the past several years has become more difficult.

Soon after taking over the Department in early 2009, Secretary Napolitano implemented what was termed an “Efficiency Review Initiative.”  Its purpose, as you might imagine, was to find ways to save taxpayers money and improve a range of operations, and there were a number of areas in which it found genuine savings and improvements. But one of the areas that was targeted for “efficiency” was the attendance of DHS personnel at outside meetings and conferences. The edict from the secretary’s office was very straightforward – only one person from DHS could appear on a program agenda, because to send more than one would be … well, inefficient. Furthermore, when it came to attendance at meetings and conferences, that too should be dramatically curtailed to one person so that whole offices or multiple persons from a division or component were not out of the office. They needed to be at their desks because to be any place else would be … well, inefficient.

In many ways such an edict would make sense in cost savings, with employees not travelling, but in terms of allowing the department’s personnel to literally get out of their respective offices and interact face to face with its customers and stakeholders from the public and private sectors (who are often on the front lines of various homeland areas) it had a chilling effect on strengthening already difficult relationships. Once vibrant and productive engagements that professional societies, trade associations and other groups had organized for years to improve the understanding of various homeland missions and relationship-building between DHS and other leaders suffered. Organizers of expositions and conferences were told by DHS public affairs personnel, quoting the directives of the Efficiency Review Initiative, that it would not be a productive use of DHS employees’ time to take part in their programs. Furthermore, only one person could be part of any program agenda.

Having one person on an agenda would be absolutely spectacular if that one person could talk in detail about every nuance of the department and its components and all of the nuts and bolts details in programs and policies, but not even the department’s top leadership can be expected to know all of those details.

Established programs put on by SARMA, NDIA, ASIS International and others that brought experts from all corners of issues have found themselves with empty podiums and chairs that had once been used by DHS personnel to engage in genuine conversations between different yet absolutely invested and critically important homeland stakeholders. Those types of interactions have always been essential to getting a better understanding of issues and concerns big and small. Now those invitations to address conferences, workshops, and other discussions are subject to multiple forms, numerous sign-offs, and lots of approvals so as to make sure they are an “efficient” use of time.

The situation has reached the point that several department employees have been taking personal vacation time and paying out of their own pockets to attend some meetings and conferences so that can they continue to build relationships and start and keep conversations going on the department’s missions.

For me the ultimate irony of this situation is that you can give the majority of the department’s personnel a security clearance, entrust them with the nation’s secrets, and ask them to put life and safety at risk to protect the homeland, but you can’t trust them enough to let them make a decision on whether attending or speaking at a conference is an efficient use of their time and the department’s. Every moment of time is valuable, but when it is used to build a relationship, improve understanding and establish a contact, that value can go up exponentially.

Not every conference or program should have dozens of DHS employees on the agenda or in the audience, but there is value in interacting firsthand and in person with the people, industries and stakeholders of the homeland. Email and phone calls are useful tools, but so are a face-to-face encounter and a handshake.

We also need to remember that not every out-of-town conference or meeting is an expensive GSA-sponsored hot tub-soaking, bike-building team exercise. To those that break the rules and abuse their positions and opportunities, throw the book at them, but treating everyone like they are a suspect or up to something sinister because they want to engage with the department (or elsewhere in the executive branch) does not build or reflect an appropriate level of respect or trust. It breeds contempt, disunity and distrust, and those attributes serve no one in the homeland, especially the people who serve that mission inside as well as outside of DHS. There’s nothing inefficient about that.

Part One – Working in a sometimes thankless job

Part Two – Political appointees and the department

Part Three – The personnel system, the pay and the confirmation process


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39827">

    This is simply wrong. All government clearances are granted by the same agency. A Secret, TS, or TS/SCI is the same no matter who holds it.

    Now what it grants you access to might vary. It’s the old “need to know” question.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-41043">

    Your information is incorrect, there are not different types of clearances at different agencies and they are reciprocally accepted by other agencies. I notice the article branched out into a completely different topic and didn’t give any examples of what you are claiming. If a clearance is not reciprocally accepted there may be a good reason – such as it is not the same or higher level required. Also, as Buzz indicated, the clearance doesn’t grant you access, access is based on need to know.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-42517">
    Cosmo deMedici

    In addition to a Need to Know, many people confuse Suitability vs. Clearance.
    Secretary has pushed for reciprocity on clearances within the Department; however, some components have a higher suitability standard – that obstructs rotations, and is often confused with security clearance and called a denial.

    A HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE, so show you the difference:

    You work at the National Zoo feeding bamboo to the Pandas, they are property of China (at least the new ones), and you have to have a Secret clearance. In disclosing your information for that clearance, you had a past drug issue. That did not bar you from the security clearance nor from the job of bringing bamboo to the Pandas.

    Fast forward 5 years and now you want to leave the zoo and feed K-9’s for DHS at the training center for the dogs (new job). This job too has a secrete clearance requirement but this time you are deemed NOT suitable because of your past drug use and the dogs are being trained to detect drugs – so drugs are around for the dogs to find.

    In this example, the clearance is given reciprocity but the individual doesn’t get the job because they are not suitable on the total person concept. Also keep in mind, jobs within the Federal Government that have NO security clearance do have a suitability standard, just then it is generally lower. This is why you see the forms SF-86 and SF-85.